The (Quick and the Quirky) Descent on Quandary Peak.
I relish the climate changes in the Grand Valley, even the heat. I also enjoy the convenient access to escape the summer heat into the mountains of Colorado. In the spring I am thrilled at the mere sight of snow on the high peaks, especially if I have the good fortune to ski or snowboard down a nice looking mountain. The whole experience is like getting to slurp down a snow cone in the African Sahara, except in this case the snow cone can fully slurp you back.
Ann Driggers, Grand Junction’s business ambassador and Director of the Economic Partnership had been hounding me to stay true to my roots and climb, and even more importantly to ski some high peaks this spring. On Friday, May 12 I decided I could slip out of work an hour early and drive to the Trailhead of Quandary Peak, elevation 14,265 feet, just South of Breckenridge, Colorado. Fellow Loki member Jess Rigg decided to come along and we picked up Scott McCurdy from El Jebel along the way. We arrived late at the trailhead and tried to adjust to the altitude while we “rested.”
At 4:30 the painful alarm went off. As promised Ann awoke us and was quickly prepped for the day and was cold so she scooted up the trail ahead of us. Scott and the LOKI boys laagered a bit but were eventually on the road to the base of the classic Cristo Couloir. Waking this early is never easy for me but I never regret the glowing sunrise or the time gained by doing so. Jess and I tried our best to keep pace with Scott and Ann who had been skiing peaks with much greater regularity than us desk bound work slaves.
We kept up OK but had to stop to take photos of some curious mountain goats and the snowy landscape that was lingering into mid spring while the thermometer hit almost ninety degrees in Grand Junction. We kept on climbing as the grade gradually eased out near the summit. We reached the top around eight-twenty AM. I am rarely on a fourteener’s summit before eleven AM so this was cool. Actually it was quite cold and mega-windy so we decided to make quick and get to the downhill section. We were the picture of downhill togetherness as I was on skis, Ann and Scott on free heeled telemark gear, and Jess on the soulful snowboard. We strapped on our assortment of sliding tools and picked our way through the rocks of the icy upper of the classic and famous Cristo Couloir. We all convened on a snow ledge to contemplate a brief knap while the snow softened below. The hurried group decided to make for breakfast in Breckenridge instead and kept on with the icy, exhilarating descent.
To our surprise and delight the snow just below the ledge was soft and carvable making for smoother, less tentative turns despite the continued high angle of the slope. We forged on as I tried my best to capture the feeling of glisse we share through my camera’s lens. As the snow continued to ripen we all cut loose and swooped arcing turns down to the narrow finish of the chute.
We were greeted at the run-out of the chute by a large group of climbers roped together in glacier traveling style. It appeared to be guided group preparing for an expedition somewhere else in the world. Today this well clad group must have been practicing extreme patience as they showed little upward progress during our short break beside them. I felt a bit claustrophobic with so many mountain enthusiasts on the narrow strip of snow so early in the morning. I don’t mind people getting out in the mountains but being from the Western Slope I am not so accustomed to populated outdoor settings. Despite my feelings we were happy to head to civilization as we lashed our skis and board to backpacks and ambled down the road just in time for the breakfast cutoff at the rustic Prospector in posh downtown Breckenridge.
After this hot May I doubt there will be enough snow left for this route until next winter. There should be some classic high ski routes ready to ski until mid June. The skiing route described here was in good condition but caution is advised. Many people have died on the Cristo Couloir (and other high chutes in spring) due to avalanches and sliding down the ice.
I recommend a climb of Quandary in almost any season via the East Ridge Route. The easy access, relatively short climb, and the avalanche safe aspect of the wind blown ridge make this route the most convenient in the state. It is the fourteener to climb when the weather is questionable; avalanche danger is a consideration (always is in winter.) It is also a good warm up for longer mountain climbs. Studies have also shown that spending time at altitude can increase your physical performance at lower altitudes, like for a 5K race with your unsuspecting running buddies.
To get there take I-70 East to Exit# 201 in Frisco, CO. Follow County Road 9 through Breckenridge, past the burgeoning suburb of Blue River up to a right turn West onto Monte Cristo Road. The new East Ridge access is a parking area just to the right. For the Cristo Couloir and more difficult hikes and climbs continue on the high clearance 2-whell drive road to the end below the Blue Mountain Reservoir Damn. Christo Couloir is just ahead to the right up the obvious bulk of Quandary Peak. Many high thirteen-thousand foot peaks can be accessed here as well.
Bring it on!
Regardless of the weather report, always bring a shell and medium insulation for wind, rain, or snow in any season. I prefer mid-top shoes with good stiff sticky soles that are lightweight but avoid ankle twisting when you are miles from your car. Bring a buddy and tell you other buddies where you are going. A snack or two, multi-knife, compass, map, duct tape, sunscreen, sunglasses, aspirin for pain and altitude, and other essentials are a good idea to have along for anything “possible.”
Louis Dawson’s Guide to the Colorado Fourteeners Volume 1, North Peaks is a great book for climbing routes, road access info, and detailed descriptions for all seasons of hiking, climbing, and skiing on the fourteeners. Louis’ Volume 2, The South Peaks completes the battery of info you’ll need to fuel the fourteener obsession that will likely start once you feel the buzz of a high Colorado summit.
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